Imagine a world without Friends. It’s hard to do right? Friends is a fixture of the small screen everywhere but in an age where new content is being offered to us in so much volume why are we still watching old shows like it?
Feel-good, risk-free, anxiety-relieving COVID-free bubbles of fluff like Friends are proving the perfect antidote for many in these troubled times.
Not for nothing did WarnerMedia pluck Friends from Netflix for exclusive play on HBO Max. The five-year deal was worth $425 million over five years, not bad for a show that aired its last episode 17 years ago.
Friends is far from the only example of nostalgic binge watching. NBCUniversal spent $500 million to stream the US version of The Office on Peacock despite the show ending in 2013. That’s because it was the most streamed program in the US last year when Netflix held rights according to Nielsen data. Americans cumulatively streamed a total of more than 57 billion minutes of it, nearly 10 million more than its closest rival.
And it’s not even a patch on Ricky Gervais’ BBC original.
Other shows to rank highly on Nielsen’s list include New Girl and Vampire Diaries, both of which ended their runs more than two years ago. HBO reported a 200% increase in views of classic but old drama The Sopranos, which in the UK had a 122% rise in viewing on Sky NOW between March and October 2020 when we all locked down.
Other legacy shows commanding high rights fees and the security of large audiences are The Big Bang Theory and South Park, both snapped up for multiple millions of dollars for HBO Max and Seinfeld which Netflix will relaunch later this year in a half a billion dollar five year deal.
So why all the fuss? Analysis on the BBC website throws up a number of suggestions.
It could be that overwhelmed by so much choice, we sometimes just want something where we know exactly what to expect.
Feel-Good, Risk-Free Comfort Zone
The need for televisual comfort food would be understandably heightened as an escape from life’s current external pressures.
Following on, it is certain types of program which deliver more security than others. Once you know who “H” is in BBC hit crime drama Line of Duty are you more or less likely to revisit past series? The tension in its interrogation scenes made it a must watch at primetime, but will we eschew the stress a second time round?
Knowing the outcome has a therapeutic quality, suggests author David Renshaw; “By reducing the element of risk, contrastingly, a rewatch can possess a restorative, zen-like power.”
That’s why comedy shows are prime repeat fodder. In the UK, the BBC is replaying John Cleese’s 1970’s classic comedy Fawlty Towers in peak time, perhaps because of a dearth of new material on its books. Some (well, lots of) sexist material aside, the slapstick works surprisingly well for younger audiences who have never heard of Monty Python.
Daniel D’Addario, Variety’s chief TV critic, suggests that the trend for rewatching classic series dates back further than the pandemic. Part of it is a matter of technology having caught up to our interest and desires.
He says, “You no longer have to wait for TV reruns or invest in DVD boxsets — these things are waiting for you online. Then there is the comfort of familiarity. The things people are binging are not deeply experimental, you know the rhythms of these shows very well. It’s about knowing what you’re getting and letting it wash over you.”
Content producers are even commissioning non-intrusive television to wash over our Zoomed-out days.
Writer Kyle Chayka coined the term “ambient TV” to describe anodyne shows like Netflix’s Emily in Paris as “soothing, slow, and relatively monotonous” but ideal for as background noise while we catch up on more important things like Facebook.
Renshaw even digs up a 2013 academic paper suggesting that old TV is good for the soul. Jaye L Derrick, associate professor of social psychology at the University of Houston, described the restorative nature of repeats as creating a sense of “social surrogacy”, i.e. the familiarity we have inviting Chandler, Rachel and co into our living rooms.
That said, even Friends has its cultural sell-by date. I Love Lucy once held Friends-like popularity and just look at it now.